Review: Fuchs Audio Technology Blackjack 21 MKII combo
With a reputation for superior tone, no-frills design and a client list that would be the envy of any amplifier manufacturer, Andy Fuchs knows a thing or two about high-end tube amplification. Here’s a model from the Fuchs stable that you don’t need to be rock royalty to afford…
At 21 watts, the Blackjack 21 MKII is the lowest powered offering in Fuchs’ more affordable Casino Series. Available in head and combo formats, this is a two-channel, all-valve design. Useful features include a buffered effects loop, onboard digital reverb based on Fuchs’ Verbrator pedal, and a footswitch for channel hopping and boost.
Fuchs amps combine point-to-point wiring with high-quality PCBs in aircraft-grade aluminium chassis and custom-wound transformers. This circuit is built around three DC-heated ECC83S preamp tubes and a pair of 6V6s that can be biased individually – so you won’t need matched pairs.
Although its dimensions are relatively substantial for a 1×12, we are surprised by the cabinet’s lightness. It’s built from ‘light ply’, which Fuchs claims is environmentally friendly, highly resonant and roughly half the weight of birch ply and pine. The review amp is loaded with a Warehouse ET65 12-inch speaker, with Celestion and Eminence drivers available as options.
Having grown accustomed to a regular diet of vintage-themed single-channel amps, we feel some trepidation as we approach a combo with channel switching and utilitarian 1980s stylings. If things get really desperate, the manual may even have to be consulted.
As it turns out, such extreme measures are unnecessary, because the Blackjack 21 MKII is an extremely straightforward amp. Starting in clean mode, it’s apparent that Fuchs has put considerable effort into voicing this channel. Its most obvious attribute is clarity, but definitely not of the bright-but-bland variety. The tone has a rich harmonic texture, enjoyable dynamics and a flattering smoothness that enhances the playing experience.
With a Stratocaster plugged in, overdrive only makes an appearance as the clean gain control moves beyond the halfway point. The clean channels on some rock-oriented amps can be prone to breaking up in a rough and unrefined sort of way; in contrast, the Blackjack eases into a full-toned overdrive as dynamics begin to compress nicely and sustain increases dramatically.
All the while, there’s never any loss of clarity, even as harmonic overtones add a roaring thickness to the sound. Then, since the boost function works on both channels, it gives the clean channel enough kick to push it into a creamy overdrive with classic rock powerchords and near-endless sustain for soloing. All the while, there’s still enough transparency for the actual tone of the guitar to come through, so Strats sound like Strats, Les Pauls like Les Pauls and so on.
It’s always a concern when two-channel amps only have one set of tone controls. This usually necessitates some degree of compromise, especially if you like clear and bright clean tones but prefer darker crunch. So, it’s fortunate that Fuchs has devised a clever workaround.
The dirty channel has two additional controls – a master volume, as you might expect, plus a tone control. The tone control is actually a treble roll-off, which allows you to dial any harshness or shrillness out of the treble when the tone-control settings have been optimised for the clean channel.
Again, Fuchs has judged things just right, because the dirty channel has such a wide gain range. With its gain control set almost fully counterclockwise and its tone control set just below halfway, you can set the master volume so the two channels sound identical when you switch back and forth.
This means at the lower end of the gain spectrum, the overdrive channel can be activated to provide a transparent boost with no noticeable change in tone. Alternatively, you can dial in more gain and level, which makes switching to the dirty channel more like activating a pretty superb valve overdrive pedal. Here, the tone control really comes into play because the MKII becomes brighter as the overdrive gain control is turned up.
The dirty channel is capable of considerable crunch, but as you might expect from an amp designed by Andy Fuchs, it’s more of a refined and creamy Dumble-esque drive than a snarling modern-metal distortion. The Blackjack MKII always retains a sweetly airy treble, precise definition and clear note separation – even at high gain levels. It’s very grown-up stuff and experiments indicate that most of the drive is coming from the front end rather than the power stage.
For practical purposes, we find it best to run the overdrive gain control at around 11 o’clock with single coils. This gives sufficient overdrive for power chords and bluesy soloing and it leaves some headroom for the impressive boost feature.
The amount of boost can be adjusted via an internal trim pot on the main PCB, but proceed with caution – it’s not the most straightforward combo to disassemble. Besides which, we find the factory-set boost level just right for switching between rhythm and lead duties. The fizziness and oddly beating harmonics that frequently accompany boosting in high-gain amps are totally absent here.
The only feature that doesn’t entirely convince us is the digital reverb. There’s a lot of love out there for Fuchs’ pedals, but to our ears, the tails sound a tad murky and the reverb level control has a hair-trigger quality that makes it tricky to dial in just a hint of ambience.
The Blackjack 21 MKII an extremely enjoyable and versatile amp. Chords ring with a clarity and balance that you only get with very well-engineered valve amplifiers. Similarly, the Fuchs allows notes to sustain and bloom, with a decay that’s so smooth and even, every guitar feels more responsive and easier to play. Factor in the tonal range, volume levels and a sonic scale that belies its 21-watt rating and we think the Blackjack MKII is a safe bet.
- PRICE £1,399
- DESCRIPTION 2-channel Class AB valve combo with digital reverb, buffered effects loop and footswitchable boost. Built in the USA
- POWER RATING 21 watts
- VALVES 4x 12AX7, 1x 12AT7, 2x 6L6
- CONTROL PANEL Power on/off, reverb decay and level, overdrive tone and master, low, mid, high, overdrive gain, clean gain, instrument input
- REAR PANEL TRS footswitch socket, TRS effects send and return, 4/8/16-ohm speaker outputs, standby
- SPEAKER 1x Warehouse ET65 12-inch, 8-ohm driver
- DIMENSIONS 550 x 475 x 280mm
- WEIGHT 16.5kg/36.4lb
- CONTACT coda-music.com, fuchsaudiotechnology.com
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